Ethics: A Voice of Culture
Volume 1 Number 22 - July 2001
John Lennis & Janelle Hatherley
With the increasing interest in travel focusing on nature and culture, and the rising interest in ethnobotany, interpreters and educators need to consider the ethics involved with interpreting Indigenous culture.
John Lennis Shares His Perspective
John Lennis from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney has kindly agreed to be interviewed by Janelle Hatherly (the garden’s Manager of Community Education) on the subject of interpreting Indigenous culture. While preparing this edition of Roots, BGCI has also tried to arrange for other perspectives to be presented but unfortunately this has not been possible to do.
JH - What is the importance of interpreting Indigenous culture?
JL - To me, as a Aboriginal person, it means getting the wider community to understand Aboriginal people, their history, and their lives…Over the last 200 years, Aboriginal history and culture has always been placed in the background and now is the time for it to come to the forefront. It should be interpreted in a way that is meaningful, for everyone to understand it and come to terms with it, and understand Aboriginal people. Until recently people have failed to understand Aboriginal people and the issues they face in the world today.
JH - What is the relationship between Indigenous culture and the environment?
JL - The relationship is actually one; the culture is part of the environment. Aboriginal people lived, worked and played in the environment and the environment looked after them…Without the environment they couldn't have had a sustainable life…they were the sort of caretakers of the environment… in contrast a lot of societies today don't take any notice of their environment and that's why we've got such a mess with the environment.
JH - What do you see as the role of botanic gardens in protecting and interpreting Indigenous culture?
JL - Botanic gardens, not just here at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, but anywhere, have a role in interpreting the plants and the environment … and working with the Indigenous cultures to show how Indigenous people looked after the environment and cared for their environment, and gardens have a role in educating the wider community on environmental factors. It's a great role and a challenge for organisations like botanic gardens to be able to do it in such a way that the layperson can understand the interpretation, enjoy it, and then take the ‘cause’ and look after it to ensure future generations have a better environment to live in.
JH - Are there issues with non-Indigenous interpreters/educators interpreting Indigenous culture?
JL - To me there are. For example being an Aboriginal person and also a Catholic, I could not interpret the Christian belief of the Church of England or the Buddhist religion. How could somebody who's not of that race or religion interpret something that they're not familiar with or have an understanding of? If they can understand it, and come to terms with it, and know what it's about, then there's not a problem to me. But it's very hard for non-Indigenous people to really understand the significant values of Aboriginal culture, and to understand the whole picture. They can get part of the picture but not the whole picture.
JH - Are there aspects of Indigenous culture that non-Indigenous people find hard to understand?
JL - Very much so, depending on how the culture is interpreted. A lot of people can never understand the difference between mens' business and womens' business in today's society. They don't actually reflect back on their own society where 20-30 years ago a man going into a labour ward wouldn't have been heard of – that was womens' business. It's the same as women going into say a Masonic lodge or to a mens' only club, that's mens' business. When they can understand that, then they do understand the difference in the roles of mens' business and womens' business.
JH - Is there information about Indigenous culture that should not be interpreted at all?
JL - Oh yes, some of the sites are very sacred because they are referring to, for example, womens' business and the spiritual side of things… I've seen people interpret them and they interpret them in the wrong way. They are the sites the communities don't want interpreted; for example people go to these sites and they see the rock carvings with the figure of giant man, well these were in fact initiation sites for specific reasons. There's quite a lot of them around that should not be interpreted. It is the same for example as some of the different churches, they don't interpret everything, they still have their little secrets and certain things that happen behind closed doors. It's the same with all cultures, they do have those very sacred sites or places where you’re not allowed to go there unless you're initiated into that race or sect or whatever. This is the same with Aboriginal life and culture.
JH - What sort of ethical decisions does a non-Indigenous Interpreter need to make when interpreting Indigenous culture?
JL - If they do have to interpret Aboriginal culture, first of all they need to get the permission of the different relevant organisations. It's very difficult, because a lot of interpreters or organisations don't go through the protocol of asking permission to interpret Aboriginal culture; they just go ahead and do it. From my experience it leads to the wrong assumptions about things. I've been on tours with a non Indigenous person interpreting rock art and their interpretation is so wrong. When you say something, they say ‘…oh no no, that's the way it was told to me…’. They don't stop and think of the damage they're doing by interpreting incorrectly. If they interpret something the wrong way the damage that can be done to the wider community’s understanding is enormous. It comes back to the question of who really has the right to interpret Indigenous culture but Indigenous people themselves?
JH - If a botanic garden is going to interpret traditional knowledge, what steps do they need to take?
JL - They need to talk to the local communities and go through the protocol of asking the community, not telling them, what the community wants interpreted. As I mentioned before there are certain things that should not be interpreted and the community would tell them what should and shouldn’t be interpreted and how it should be done. Botanic gardens need to listen to the community, they need to stop and listen …by asking the community they will get a long way. If they go to the community and say '…we're going to do this, this and this…,' it's not empowering the community in having a say of what they would like to see. Asking them what they would want to be shown on display, how it should be interpreted and listening to what the community say brings about a 'win win' situation for both the gardens and the community. The community's passing on the messages that they want to have heard and the gardens are getting the knowledge and developing interpretive information that they're after.
JH - So it gives everybody a sense of ownership?
JL - Yes and it's empowering the community in their own culture about what parts of their culture they would like to be shown and interpreted. This is vital for overall success.
JH - Some botanic gardens sell artefacts in their shops - what types of issues do the gardens need to consider to ensure that this is done ethically?
JL - By again talking to the community and asking the community to produce the artefacts. Here in Sydney for example a lot of dot paintings, a special type of painting technique, are sold. Dot painting doesn't belong to Sydney, it's central west, Northern Territory artwork. By selling the local stuff, it's giving the local communities that ownership again, the right of their culture to be on display and not somebody else’s culture. This is the hardest thing for people to understand, they see the dot painting and they think it belongs to the Aboriginal people generally but there's so many different parts of Aboriginal culture.
JH - John, as the Indigenous Education Officer, what have your brought to the interpretation of the Indigenous heritage of this site?
JL - I think I've brought to the garden an understanding of the Cadigal people. The Cadigal people of the Sydney region were desecrated. I’ve worked to get everybody to understand that the Cadigal people are virtually a family group of a larger tribal group, and that the tribal groups were a little clan of groups together that formed the tribal groups who all had the same beliefs. In addition I’ve worked to show the people of Sydney that Aboriginal people had a purpose and an existence that was far beyond the understanding of the English. It was a very simple lifestyle but it was a lifestyle that they could enjoy without leaving their environment. They worked in their environment for beneficial practices of their lifestyle.
JH - Aboriginal reconciliation, how far along are we?
JL - In most of society today we are doing quite well. I'd say that there's still quite a long way to go, but ever since the Corroboree 2000 bridge walk, where 150,000 Sydneysiders expressed their support for reconciliation by marching together over Sydney Harbour Bridge, it has shown me, and quite a few other Aboriginal people, that 75-80% of Australians want to walk and work hand in hand with Aboriginal people.
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Con el creciente interés en los viajes centrados en la naturaleza y la cultura, y el aumento del interés por la etnobotánica, los intérpretes y educadores necesitan considerar la ética relacionada con la interpretación de la cultura Indígena. El Real Jardín Botánico de Sydney ha establecido un compromiso de reconciliación aborigen con el acuerdo de John Lennis, el Secretario de Educación Indígena del Jardín. En este artículo John comparte su perspectiva en la interpretación de la cultura indígena australiana y da a los intérpretes del Jardín Botánico y educadores algún sustento para considerar e interpretar, a partir de la ética de la gente no indígena, una cultura indígena. Él habla de lo que es más apropiado y también de las decisiones éticas que ellos necesitan tomar para asegurarse de que lo están haciendo de una manera apropiada.
About this Article
BGCI greatly appreciates John Lennis taking time to share his perspective. John is the Indigenous Education Officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. The interview was conducted by Janelle Hatherly, Manager of Community Education at the gardens. Both John and Janelle can be contacted at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Mrs Macquarie’s Road, Sydney 2000 New South Wales Australia. Tel: (61) 2 9231 8111 Fax: (61) 2 9251 4403 Email: Janelle.Hatherly@rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au